VIDEO: Alan Cumming and Company Launch Web's First "Obsession Network"
The creators of the networking site itsasickness.com are betting our obsessions will be the Internet’s next big thing. Behind the scenes at Departures’ photo shoot, the three founders—including actor Alan Cumming—discuss their own “sicknesses” and why our fixations are what make us most interesting.
“This is how we use the Internet already—we just don’t admit how wonderfully weird and funny it is,” says Barnaby Harris, referring to his new website, itsasickness.com, a portal for anyone who’s obsessed with something and wants to “geek out” about it online. “We encourage people to acknowledge their sickness,” Harris says, “and help them see that other people have it, too.”
The expression “It’s a sickness” has been following Harris around, in different contexts, for years. A veteran Broadway stage manager, he realized at some point about eight years ago that nearly everyone he knew had become obsessed with yoga. “I got caught up in it, too. Then one day I stepped back and saw that most of these people were just as hostile and bitter as the rest of us. But they were so sanctimonious; they carried their mats around New York City like they were Torahs. What’s that about?”
Harris, a puckish 44-year-old, didn’t need long to come up with an answer. “It’s a sickness,” he says. “We’re a sick people in an obsession-based culture.”
The yoga scene, Harris thought, was both silly and humorless, and he decided to say so. He made a T-shirt that said F**K YOGA (this is a family magazine, but you get the point) and wore it for 39 days straight. “Everywhere I went, people asked me how they could get one. I even did a spread for GQ!” Energized, he opened a store called F**k Yoga, in lower Manhattan, where he sold the shirts. To his delight, the Tony Award–winning actor Alan Cumming became a huge fan. “I loved how the shirt made people gasp,” says Cumming.
Wanting to push the concept further, Harris began selling other products printed with the logo—flip-flops, skateboards, even yoga mats—and started targeting other obsessions, notably one of America’s most famous architects. After his F**K FRANK GEHRY shirt got a write-up in The New Yorker, Harris and Cumming considered doing something bigger: a theatrical piece, maybe, or a TV show or radio interviews. Ultimately they decided that the project belonged where the daily drama of our obsessions already unfolds: on the Internet.
By 2008 Harris had left the theater and traded in his retail shop for studio space in an industrial arts building on the Lower East Side, where he, Cumming, and a small staff began developing itsasickness.com, the world’s first “object networking” website for obsessions. Cumming went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in April to announce its initial launch.
Object networking, a phrase that Harris says may have been invented by the itsasickness team, is about establishing deeper ties to the things that we obsess over, and in the process recognizing that our relationships with these things—favorite foods, TV shows, political causes, you name it—help define us. Social networking, as anyone who’s spent time on Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn knows, is about making more (and usually more shallow) connections to people. Itsasickness is built on the counterintuitive premise that focusing on objects, not interacting with people, is a more intimate and pleasurable way to spend time online.
Fred Gooltz, the young chief operating officer who learned about using social networks for online organizing while working for groups that supported Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, has a blunt way of contrasting the two kinds of sites. “There’s nothing more disorienting than a social-networking site,” he says. “We hardly know most of our ‘friends’ these days. And how much do we really care what they just ate for lunch?”
“Sickness” is a loaded word for the enterprise. There’s a history of stigma attached to obsessive behavior, including fandom (think of Trekkies). Harris wants to play on this idea but also evoke the more contemporary meaning of the term. “ ‘That’s sick’ is what kids in California and surfers and skiers say when something is intense or incredible,” he says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of—it’s cool.”
In fact, itsasickness is designed to encourage participants to show they are the sickest. “You get status, like a crown, for being a leader on a topic,” Gooltz explains. “We want to identify and engage the most hardcore people,” Harris adds. In one video on the site already, member Joe Plummer discusses the mystery of Shakespeare’s true identity; in another video, musicians Adam Schatz and Jeff Curtin sing songs they wrote about episodes of Lost.
The chance to prove the depth of one’s passion may well draw people to itsasickness.com. So might the site’s hip, professional design, high-quality videos, and celebrity-generated content. (Zoe Kravitz’s obsession? Costumes! Jason Bateman’s? Classical music.) But attracting eyeballs and keeping them there is the great challenge for every Internet start-up, and itsasickness faces stiff competition for our attention. Sports junkies, for example, already have ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com, CNN.com, and the countless sites covering their favorite teams.
Harris, who describes himself as an evangelist for the project, says his faith stems from his view that the phrase “It’s a sickness” is the perfect expression for the moment. “It’s going to be the next ‘Just do it,’ ” he says, “but for everything, not just sneakers.” Another plus is the fact that the site’s content is generated by genuine enthusiasts. “We’re not some big media company with an ulterior motive for creating community. The experience we offer is authentic. Even the ads, when we get them, are going to be authentic, and we’re going to offer specific products geared toward people’s obsessions.”
Of course they also have to find a way to sell companies on partnering with them, but Gooltz believes their business plan can succeed. Unlike social-networking sites, which are notoriously difficult to monetize, a successful object-networking site—but only a successful one—would be an obvious draw to advertisers. If Kindle users flock to itsasickness, might Amazon want to follow them? Whether the more specialized and obscure “sicknesses” like asparagus, No. 6 clog boots, and the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, which make up the majority of the site, will have a similar appeal is just one of the project’s many unknowns.
As they approached the final launch date set for this fall, Harris and Cumming were already scheming their next step. “I really shouldn’t tell you this,” Harris says, “but we’re working on an itsasickness TV show, with Alan as the MC and, most likely, the sickest people from the website providing content.” Some of us, at least, can never get enough.
Itsasickness obsessions include argyle, bubble wrap, Estonia, hurdy-gurdies, molé, Peter Lorre, Rooibos tea, and Savile Row tailors.
In Alan Cumming’s itsasickness video about his obsession with his dogs, he confesses that they have their own publicity photos.
Alan Cumming: True oil, gay rights, Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, seventies Scottish child-star singer Lena Zavaroni, luxury travel, Flip video, his dogs
Fred Gooltz: Seventies movies, Conan O’Brien, Led Zeppelin, Motown, Shakespeare, World Cup soccer, Porsche 911
Barnaby Harris: Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda’s character on M.A.S.H.), seventies TV and movies, Apple products, overuse of paper towels